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Where I’ve been eating this summer

in Features/Restaurants

I have been out quite a lot in the last few months, but I haven’t written about any of the stuff I’ve eaten. I’ll never get time to review everywhere I’ve eaten in full, but here are some short thoughts and recommendations about all of the spots I’ve visited. I haven’t written anything about it, but of course I’ve been to Good Friend chicken around five times in the last few months, and it remains the best friend chicken you can get.

Macellaio, Southwark

Sam has reviewed Macellaio for SUL (we both went separately during their soft launch), and I mostly agree with what he said. It’s an interesting idea, and the “pissa”—Ligurian pizza but with thicker, fluffier bread, and a tangy yoghurty cheese instead of mozzarella—were pretty good. But they clearly lack a hot enough grill to get a proper char on the outside of otherwise fairly good meat. I got half off because it was a soft launch, and I can’t imagine myself going back at full price. (No Medals)

Olympic Cafe, Waterloo

By contrast, I expect to go back to Olympic Cafe fairly regularly. It’s a barebones, utilitarian, spartan-as-can-be little room with bland decor and tables, and an extremely aggressive waiter/maitre-d lady. It offers only a list of the most generic Chinese foods. And yet, for the price, its quality is extremely impressive: I had a sizeable plate of roast crackling pork with amazingly crispy skin and juicy meat, for just £5! I don’t know whether everything they sell is so impressive, but I want to find out. (One Medal)

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Shackfuyu, Soho

Shackfuyu is a side-project of hipster-ish ramen restaurant Bone Daddies, and it’s been open about two years, seemingly always busy and successful. Their menu is short and to the point, and many dishes had run out by the time we ate, which I always take as a positive. Only about half of the dishes worked, but when they came off they really came off—and the failures were still worthwhile tries. (Verging on One Medal)

The Diner, Covent Garden

I was invited to try “hard tea” cocktails at The Diner. They were okay, but they were too sweet, and didn’t taste sufficiently of tea. Their regular schtick is American-style junk food and it was competent if unexceptional: bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers, crispy-fluffy sweet potato fries, etc. There are too many places that do this exceptionally to actually go, but nothing I ate made me hate it, as I might have predicted. (No Medals)

Shotgun, Soho

So Shotgun was one of my favourite London restaurants, and maybe still is, but, as Sam sums up very accurately here, their Chicken Dinner menu is absolutely diabolical. If they keep focusing on the BBQ—which they do as well as anywhere, if not better—then they remain a two medal restaurant. When it comes to anything else, they risk being an avoid.

Legs, Hackney

Of all the restaurants I went to, this is the one I wanted to review individually the most. Legs fulfils all of my arbitrary restaurant preferences: short menu, focuses on what it’s good at, few seats, strong flavours, interesting ideas, knows how to cook pork belly properly. I’d wanted to go since I heard about them, but when am I ever in Hackney Central? Don’t miss the pork belly, which they slowly poach, cool, store, then pan fry until the outside is crisp, and serve with sunflower seeds and plum ketchup. Also don’t miss the grilled watermelon with sumac—what a combination! It’s also the right price: there’s no need to spend more than £30 or so a head if you don’t want to. (One Medal)

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Chick n Sours, Covent Garden

The first Chick n Sours, in Haggerston, won plaudits from basically everyone, and many of my friends are hardcore aficionados, regularly making the trip across to eat its fried chicken. So I was pretty excited. But I didn’t really “get it” when I went, perhaps due to dish choice, perhaps due to having bad taste, perhaps just because I chose the wrong dips. I’m going to go back before making a final judgement (it’s not expensive, and I did love the zingy pickled watermelon), but on what I had first time I’d call it no medals. The staff were great though.

The Canonbury Tavern, Highbury

The Canonbury is now one of the two closest pubs to where I live, so I went in to check it out on the very day I moved in. It’s a treasure. I feel so lucky to live in a London where there are 20-30 pubs serving food this great: perfect sticky reduced stock jus; attractively presented king oyster mushrooms; beautiful old England pub glamour surroundings; steaks cooked just how you ask for them; expert use of different bits of game in the way they should be. And good bread. Mains are £15-20, starters and desserts about £6—just what you want. (One Medal)

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The Palomar, Soho

So The Palomar served me probably the best bread dish I’ve eaten this year: Yemeni layered croissant-like bread that was simultaneously fluffy and light but also extremely dense and heavy. I can’t say how that even works, but it does, and I equally did not expect that tahini and a gazpacho-like tomato sauce would be so good to dip in. But they also served me by far the worst pork belly dish I’ve ever eaten, a horrifying mistake of a dish: rubbery, impossible to cut, chewy, and with a bewildering selection of sides whose purposes were completely unclear. God it was terrible. And the rest of the dishes were on a range between those: some totally underwhelming, some satisfying and strongly flavoured (like the deconstructed kebab). I was shocked at the unreliability, given the wide swathe of 10/10 reviews. (No Medals)

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MeatLiquor N1, Islington

Of course, I’ve been to every other Meat-X restaurant, although the MeatWagon that started it all was before my time. They continue to be among the best adverts for London’s burger “scene”, although this time I had a lovely Philly cheesesteak, totally different from the more authentic-seeming one at Liberty Cheesesteaks in Spitalfields Market and good in a totally different way. Dense, moist, juicy, fatty, cheesy meat—if it’s on the specials menu don’t miss out. (One Medal, like their other spots.)

Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Kingston

I’ve been to GBK in Kingston quite a few times, and it’s definitely not great when you compare it to the options you have in London nowadays (Shake Shack, Bleecker St Burger, Dip & Flip). Most people probably like it less than Byron and Five Guys—both of which have a branch in Kingston. But you know, I think it’s totally tolerable, and I don’t mind going whenever my younger brother (who loves the place) wants to. If he’s paying… But I won’t give it a rating because I know Sam & Philip would give it an avoid.

Gaucho Grill, Piccadilly

When I was younger, Gaucho was a Thing. More than Hawksmoor or Goodman, it was the steak restaurant I’d heard of as a child. We went to the Richmond one for my 16th birthday and it was the first time I’d ever eaten food that expensive. Something like £40 for the large fillet. I loved it then, but each time I’ve been back since, I’ve found it less impressive. The last time, before this recent visit, was the last day before two years of vegetarianism, which is sort of like it being my last straight partner before I realised I was gay.

This time, we went for a special £75 menu (but were invited) that was being sold to people around the world to celebrate their birthday. It was called “Divine Bovine” and, honestly, it was garbage, especially for the price. There was one good dish, a slow cooked, tender in the middle, crispy on the outside, bit of beef rib accompanied by hoi sin. The rest was a waste of time, especially the diabolical, undrinkable beef martini, which tasted of beef stock with white spirit. Don’t put on a big meal if your kitchen can’t handle it. The normal restaurant is okay, but I’d honestly rather go to Flat Iron and have two or three of their specials. Gaucho is a big waste of money. (Avoid)

Review: Shotgun, Soho

in Restaurants

Shotgun was one of the first places we ever reviewed here. Ben loved its take on US-style barbecue food: pig’s ears, beef brisket, and kid goat that made me very jealous to read about. Since then, it has been trying out specialised menus, two of which I’ll review here: an all you can eat weekend lunch, and a fried chicken dinner menu.

My first trip to Shotgun was for the all you can eat. Like presumably most people reading, I have a special place in my heart for the words “all you can eat”. There is nothing quite as crushing as the feeling of still being a little hungry after a meal out, and the proliferation of tapas-style restaurants in London has made this threat a clear and present danger. (It doesn’t help that I often share meals with people with relatively small appetites who don’t really get my anxiety about this.)

But I’m also well aware that “all you can eat” is a byword for shit. Brazilian “steak” houses, Chinese buffets, fajitas done Old El Paso style, that sort of thing. I still enjoy them for making me gut-bustingly full but I’m not proud of myself about it. For Shotgun to do an all you can eat menu, surely, was some kind of terrible fall from grace?

Ribs, burnt ends, pork neck, pork belly

Happily, surprisingly, no. Without retreading over old ground, the brisket burnt ends were beautifully crisp and bursting with a rich, flavoursome juice; the slow-cooked piglet was the best-tasting pulled pork I’ve had since my trip to Auburn, Alabama; the pork belly was balanced nicely between sweet-tasting meat and layers of fat; and the sides (things like barbecue beans and pureed potatoes) were generous, if anything too much so (I kid, there’s no such thing as too big a portion). The cornbread in particularly was the best I’ve ever had, covered with golden syrup to give it a gorgeous sweet crust.

Cornbread
Cornbread

On top of all this, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon (which is quite nice, whatever Americans say) and glasses of prosecco were on sale for £2 each. The only “problem” with all this was that the first plate of food was so darn filling that I could barely finish a second. A very good problem to have, and even if £25/head is a bit steep for a normal lunch, for this I thought I was getting a good deal.

Our sides
Our sides

I cannot begin to understand what happened between that trip in September and my most recent visit, exactly a month later. This was to try Shotgun’s new “fried chicken dinner” menu, apparently introduced after the closure of The Lockhart, another restaurant from the same people with a slightly broader take on American cuisine. What could be more exciting – a proper competitor to Chick’n Sours, whose new Covent Garden branch (along with the unbeatable Good Friend Chicken) really might herald the penetration of excellent fried chicken into central London. (Disclosure: Shotgun invited me to review this meal; it did not invite me to review the earlier one.)

Pimento cheese
Pimento cheese

Things started with the same menu items as the weekend lunch. Devilled eggs were bland, but the pimento cheese was quite difficult to resist. It’s basically cheddar cheese mashed up with mayonnaise and bits of pimento pepper to a soft, spreadable spread served with little salted TUC biscuits. It won’t set the world on fire but it’s enjoyably trashy.

Dirty rice
Dirty rice

After that was the ‘dirty rice’, a bowl of rice made with ground chicken liver, chunks of andouille sausage, slices of spring onion and (allegedly) bits of crab meat, which I couldn’t detect but one of my fellow diners could. Apparently it was a soul food dish based on food given to slaves that used up leftovers and scraps.

It was a strangely offally dish to serve on a communal set menu: I quite like the taste of chicken liver, but at least a large minority of people don’t. I enjoyed the dish well enough, but it wasn’t anything special. It was strange to serve this as a course in its own right, along with the cornbread, but perhaps that’s the custom in America.

Then things started to go badly wrong. The fried chicken bits certainly looked good: they were big and golden and crispy, and came piled high in two bowls. But they tasted of, well, nothing. The batter had seemingly no seasoning or flavouring at all, tasting more like fish and chip batter than fried chicken coating. It was, in the end, far too crispy and over-battered. But just flavourless, boring, bland, pointless. The chicken was served with the Shotgun house barbecue sauces, which go well with beef and pork but were completely inappropriate for fried chicken (which, if it needs a sauce, needs gravy) at the best of times, and just did not work at all with these flavourless chunks in front of me.

The “mac and cheese” was even worse. Christ, the mac and cheese. The photo above might not capture the grim disappointment of this dish well enough, but what came out to us was small conchiglie pasta shells in a sort of orange sauce that may have turned into cheese if we’d left it long enough, but certainly didn’t seem to have ever been near the stuff before then. Shot through that sauce was at least a cupful of breadcrumbs, as if the thing that can rescue pasta-in-flavourless-orange-sauce is a great big fistful of bread. A dish made with Sainsbury’s Oven Baked Macaroni Cheese Sauce would have been better than this monstrosity.

The sides of a salad, potato puree and coleslaw were fine. But there’s another thing that bothered me: all the portions were really quite small. For a set menu like this, you hope that the standardisation means they’ll be able to give you a lot of food, but our rice and mac and cheese bowls were half as large as I’d have expected for the number of people we had, and two pieces of fried chicken each plus what are really just a lot of side dishes is terrible value for £20/head, even if the food had been half decent.

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I fear Shotgun is falling on hard times. It has a pricey-looking location just off Regent Street and upscale barbecue might not be the cash cow that it needs to be. It was busy on the Saturday afternoon we went, but almost deserted throughout the Monday evening. I felt quite sad looking seeing the handful of other diners eating their mac and cheese as I left. Maybe that explains the experimentation with different menus.

But if anyone from Shotgun is reading this: please, please consider scrapping the fried chicken menu. It was one of the worst, most disappointing meals I have had in a restaurant that I can remember having. If someone came here on the basis of one of our reviews I’d be embarrassed and suspect they would never listen to us again. I dearly hope Shotgun gets its act together soon, because doing barbecue it deserves to thrive. Doing the stuff of this fried chicken menu, it deserves to die.

Rating: Avoid, if it’s the fried chicken. If meat’s back on the menu, I think Ben’s two medals still apply, and that £25 weekend lunch is great fun.

Review: Macellaio, Southwark

in Restaurants

Before I begin, I should point out that I ate at Macellaio’s new Southwark branch (it has two already – one in Clerkenwell and one in South Kensington) during its ‘soft launch’ period, during which food was 50% off and some of the kinks are still being ironed out. I’m a little uncomfortable giving a bad review to anywhere during a soft launch, because I feel like part of the deal is to put up with the problems in exchange for a cheap meal.

At the centre of the dining room were two long benches with a space in the middle for staff to walk up and down to serve diners, inexplicably raised up on a platform so high that they had to stoop down to put the plates down or hear what we were saying. I didn’t manage to take an illicit photo of one of the staff up there without it feeling invasive, so you’ll have to take my word for it. At the top of the room was a butchery station where a man wearing a trilby hat chopped steaks off one of the beef ribcages that hung beside him.

The (very large) wine list was, to me at least, unhelpfully expensive. I settled on the cheapest thing I could find, which was a £23 carafe of chianti and tasted fine, but I noticed that most of my fellow soft launch frugalists were on beer (£4.50/bottle).

Our first starter was a battuta (£5.50 before the discount), an Italian steak tartare without the strong accompaniments that steak tartare usually has like pickles and Worcestershire sauce. It was a real treat – the beef was fresh and tender and well-dressed with a good olive oil, making for a more subtle flavouring than steak tartare usually gives.

Our other two starters were more disappointing. Beef tongue (usually £5) was strong and shot through with a rich vein of fat, but the splodges of salsa verde it came with were utterly flavourless. Anchovies with butter and bread (£6) were nice enough, but literally just that – half a dozen little anchovies with a knob of creamy butter and two thin slices of bread (that tasted a little stale). I enjoyed eating a very buttery piece of bread with anchovies on top, but I don’t need to go to Macellaio and spend £6 for that privilege.

Bread, anchovies and butter served on a rock

There is only one meat option at Macellaio – the six-week aged beef ribs hanging in a fridge at the top of the dining room (£5.40/100g). They show you your cut after it’s been butchered so I presume it’s good quality meat, and certainly it looked red and healthy to me. After it’s been cooked it’s brought to your table (well, bench) with a bit too much fanfare as the waiters do a countdown and unveil the beef from under its serving platter lid.

Unfortunately the steak was not seared enough on the outside, presumably because the grill was not hot enough, and so was mostly grey and the fat not crispy enough. It was still a tender and pleasingly light-tasting bit of meat, and did have some crispy outside bits that were very enjoyable, but it felt like a bit of a waste. Unfortunately the chips that came with it were very bad, greasy with oil and again not cooked hot enough to be crunchy on the outside.

Having said that, the beef was surprisingly inexpensive in relative terms – Hawksmoor’s prime rib is £8.25/100g and compared to that (admittedly better-cooked) this did feel like it could be a decent deal. But if you’re serving a big piece of beef, and making it the centrepiece of your restaurant, you should get it right.

According to Ben the pissas – apparently the way Ligurians spell pizza – were better; crispily soaked in olive oil at the bottom, light and fluffy at the top, and topped with soft little lumps of tangy, yoghurty stracchino cheese (not mozzarella). They were also cheap at £6 each.

One other thing really annoyed me that I feel I should mention. Quite a few times the staff put their hands on my shoulder (eg when I was ordering), including at one point when the manager and I had had a misunderstanding about when we’d be sitting that I think he took a little personally. Maybe that’s fun in Italy, but it’s not fun for me.

Self-consciously upmarket, Macellaio felt a little bit like a Strada or ASK for people on City salaries. And it’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy myself or any of the food, or that with some improvement it could be quite a lot better. But at £71 for two under the discount, which would have been closer to £100 without, I just can’t really understand why, at those prices, I would want to go back.

Rating: No medals.

Review: Kerb, Camden

in Restaurants

Even though I love street food, by which I mean stalls or vans that sell a very limited range of things for £5-10 apiece, it’s difficult to review. My favourite place for lunch in the world is Santana Grill, at Strutton Ground market near my office, which does some of the best burritos and tacos I’ve ever had, including in Mexico. But who wants to read a long review of a place you can’t really justify a trip to and you can’t actually eat at? That’s what the Straight Up London Food Map is for.

But the growth of permanent street food areas, where you can go all day any day, means a semi-review is justifiable. A fortnight ago I visited Dalston’s Street Feast for a Bleecker Street burger (yes, it is the best burger in London), and this week I visited the new Kerb in Camden. It’s a fairly tightly packed courtyard next to Camden Lock market, quite pretty and far away enough from the throng of the main street that you can move around easily enough. I first went as a guest of Kerb, and then went back on my own dollar a few days later. Here’s a brief review of some of the things I tried.

Mother Clucker

These breast strips are about 3"x1" in size

This place does three or four large chicken breast strips for £6, coated in batter and deep fried. The chicken is astonishingly moist – better by far than the strips at the otherwise-mighty Chick’n Sours – and the batter very crispy. I’m very impressed with the chicken here, which apparently is ‘tea brined’ and (probably because I’m a suggestable eejit) really did have a very enjoyable whiff of black tea. The massive difference between getting three and four strips is slightly annoying – four for £6 is a steal, three is decent value. Either way, this is tremendous fried chicken.

The Patate

I’d never tried a ‘beef bourguignon burger’ before and since the others online look absolutely nothing like The Patate’s (thank god) I’m pretty sure they can claim it as their invention. Basically, it’s quite dry beef bourguignon fried on a griddle with gravy poured over and eventually a slice of cheese (Raclette de Savoie, blue Fourme d’Ambert or cheddar) melted on the griddle and then placed on top. It’s quite a fun thing to eat because it feels unique, but I can’t say that I’d have it again – though it’s enjoyable the flavours are too bland for me, and ultimately it feels a little bit lacking.

Other Side

Other Side’s chicken breast was extremely crispily fried, decently moist (it’s stupid to compare something this size to Mother Clucker’s strips – you simply can’t get the same level of moistness because you have to cook it for longer), and dressed with some excellent homemade pickles and a generous slab of bacon.

But it also needed, I thought, more saucing. The smoked honey butter they brushed it with sounded amazing but I couldn’t really taste it, and I thought that even the buffalo burger that my friend had, with buffalo sauce squirted on from a bottle, seemed dry. They should try dunking the chicken in buffalo sauce and make the honey flavouring more pronounced because right now all the breading (on the bun and the chicken) just overwhelms the other flavours.

Oli Baba’s

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Halloumi fries are a very enjoyable idea, because even though you can buy a block of halloumi in Tesco Express for £1.79 it still feels like a bit of a treat. These are chip-sized bits deep fried to a golden semi-crisp, with a spongey inside and served with yoghurt, pomegranate molasses and seeds and mint leaves. It’s quite delicious – the yoghurt cuts through the saltiness of the halloumi and the pomegranate sweetness adds a nice extra dimension – but not really sustainable for a whole meal. Everyone I saw was getting a portion of fries between two, and one was enough for the two of us as a chaser to our Mother Clucker servings.

Overall

I also tried steak and chips from Steakhaus, but forgot to take a photo – it was OK, a decently seasoned bit of (I think) bavette steak, but nothing special. I’m not sure it makes sense to give a street food venue a rating, but there are enough places that looked nice that I’ll probably be back to try them. I don’t like Camden, but Kerb does make it quite a bit less terrible.

Review: Bao, Fitzrovia

in Restaurants

Bao’s Soho branch was the first place I reviewed for Straight Up London and, unlike everyone else, I didn’t think too much of it. The queue was ludicrously long and the food just wasn’t that interesting.

Still, my girlfriend liked it and now that Bao has opened a second branch in Fitzrovia she wanted to go. The room is bigger and airier, with diner seated around a horseshoe-shaped bar looking out onto a quiet side-street. It’s very pleasant, and makes me feel as if I’m in Japan (though Bao is Taiwanese).

Bao’s menu is divided into three stages. Xiao chi (small eats) come first, then the bao, then the chi shiang rice bowls to fill you up at the end. You can also buy a £27 “limited edition” t-shirt if you like wasting money.

Preserved cabbage, corn with beef butter and prawn heads

Sweetcorn with “beef butter” was surprisingly delicious. The beef butter made the corn taste rich, savoury and meaty, and I gobbled it down. The prawn heads had been deep-fried to a crisp, and each bite was a burst of oily, fishy goodness. At £2 they felt like excellent value and I was tempted to order a second bowl.

Beef cheek and tendon nuggets

Beef cheek and tendon nuggets were similar in principle to the Soho Bao’s pig trotter nuggets, but inside had big, half-melting chunks of tendon, which tastes halfway between fat and a very thick jelly with a meaty taste. The beef cheek would have been a little overpoweringly beefy if not for the acidity of the green chilli sauce they came with, which was literally finger-lickin’ good.

Duck hearts with chilli garlic sauce
Duck hearts with chilli garlic sauce

Our final small plate was duck hearts with chilli garlic sauce, which came sliced in half with a warm onion marmalade, spring onions and coriander on top. They were unbelievably tender and each one pretty much melted in your mouth as you ate them. The balance of the sweet marmalade and garlic sauce against the fresh sharpness of the onions and coriander was perfect. This was truly one of the nicest meat dishes I have had, up there with Silk Road’s barbecued lamb skewers for sheer pleasure.

Pork confit bao
Pork confit bao

Then came the bao, which after all this I was excited for. But, alas, they were basically the same as last time. Not bad, exactly, but just very boring. My pork confit bao’s fried onions went nicely with the sweet hot sauce and sliced of pork belly, but ultimately it all ended up tasting a bit too sweet and cloying. The buns themselves were fluffy and pillowy, but weren’t that special.

Classic bao
Classic bao

The ‘classic’ bao was better with a nice little heap of ground peanuts on top of warm preserved vegetables and bits of braised pork, but still didn’t really do much in the way of flavour. No doubt bao are a subtle dish that is lost on me, but I really don’t see the attraction, especially for £4-4.50 each. The lamb bao (not pictured) was much better, because the meat actually had a distinct flavour, and came with a fresh minty sauce.

Beef shortrib, marrow and mushroom rice bowl
Beef shortrib, marrow and mushroom rice bowl

We shared a rice bowl to finish, which was probably a mistake – it’s too awkward to share really. It was comfort food, with some small but thick slices of beef shortrib, an egg yolk and some beef ‘tea’ to pour over. Again, not very excitingly flavoured but the beef tea and egg stuck to fat grains of sushi rice and made it quite a nice way to end the meal. I wouldn’t mind a cheaper version with just the beef tea and the egg, though – the point is to fill up, and the other parts of the dish were unnecessary.

All told the bill came to £28 per head, which was not exactly cheap but didn’t feel like a rip-off given the variety of what we had, and the quality of some of it. Drinks are priced fairly extortionately, though – £4.50 is an absurd price for half a pint of Kernel table beer, as is £8 (!) for a 600ml bottle of Taiwan beer (I had a £4.50 stubbie can instead).

Overall my impression of Bao has changed a little. The bao themselves are still too bland and unremarkable to bother with, but the side plates are something else altogether. Bone Daddies opened Shakfuyu as a branch to sell its side plates on their own, which is certainly something Bao’s owners should consider. If I ever go back, I’ll stick with the prawn heads and duck hearts. Basically, Bao is great – if you skip the bao.

Rating: One medal (Two for the side plates, none for the bao).

Review: Good Friend Chicken, Chinatown (née Bigbe Chicken)

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(Update, 25th August: Bigbe Chicken is now Good Friend Chicken, and has moved a couple of doors down. When I last went, it was much the same with an expanded menu and slightly higher prices of around 30p or so per item. The old favourites were still superb, but the squid, which I hadn’t tried before, was terrible. Other new items, like chicken necks, were OK but slightly awkward to eat. “Good Friend” is still great, but unless you’re feeling adventurous stick to the popcorn chicken and chicken breast.)

Bigbe Chicken is a small Taiwanese fried chicken shop in Chinatown that opened about three weeks ago. I heard about it from Lizzie’s Hollow Legs blog and visited it late one night after attending a film premiere around the corner.

Its menu is small and straightforward: three different kinds of chicken, deep fried squid, and some sweet potato fries. I went for the deep fried breast and a batch of popcorn chicken.

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The first thing you need to know is that the portions are enormous. I didn’t think the chicken breast’s £5.50 price was too bad to begin with, but once I saw that they were the size of a football hammered about half an inch thick I realised that I was on to a true bargain. Popcorn chicken was appreciably different, with a much greater batter to chicken ratio and fried for longer for a crispier shell.

All are topped with your choice of flavoured powders – I had ‘special pepper’ (Sichuan, I think) and chilli powder on my chicken breast and Thai seasoning on my popcorn. The pepper and chilli, recommended by our very chatty and friendly server Laura, was sweet and spicy, and soaked into the batter nicely. The Thai was maybe slightly underpowered for the popcorn chicken, whose batter was so thick it probably needed something punchier, but it was hardly a problem.

The chicken itself was magnificent. It was hot, crispy, salty, juicy and meaty, and the sheer pleasure of holding a giant piece of searingly hot chicken in your hands while you nibble off bits as it cools in your hands is hard to overstate. I can’t work out how it managed to stay so hot throughout me eating it but I’m happy to say that I didn’t burn my mouth.

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Popcorn chicken was perhaps even better. The thumb-sized pieces were fried to a perfect crunch and had, I think, a slightly more peppery batter than the breasts. The portion was about two fistfuls which, for £2.99, might be the best value for money food you can get anywhere in central London. The sweet potato fries I tried were also fried to a crisp, though in general I don’t really like sweet potato.

My friend had the drumstick, which was actually quite a big full leg with thigh attached, and looked like it had been cooked long or hot enough for the grease inside (a personal bugbear of mine) to melt away. I’m going back this weekend to try some off-menu things like chicken skin and parson’s nose, which I asked the owner about after reading about them in Lizzie’s review.

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I predict that quite soon Bigbe chicken will become so popular that you’ll have to queue around the block to get some. It deserves it. They have done something simple but new, and done it rather brilliantly at an unbelievably good price. My suggestion: get there before everyone else does.

Score: Two medals.

Review: St. Lukes Kitchen, Covent Garden

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Library, or Lib-rary, as its website URL has it, is a private members club on St. Martin’s Lane right by Trafalgar Square and the Chandos pub. St. Luke’s Kitchen, its restaurant, has just opened up to the public, and as well as normal service, has a bunch of kitchen takeovers and guest chefs lined up over coming months. I went to the regular restaurant and was pretty impressed.

Quail "three ways"
Quail “three ways”

It offers an unfussy menu of regular restaurant offerings done well. Yes, you’ve eaten quail, but it’s still a delight when the skin is properly done to a crisp yet the flesh is still juicy, tender and slightly pink. Yes, you’ve eaten seared tuna—maybe you’ve even seared it yourself—but is it always four tender and mild melt-in-the-mouth tender chunks paired with just the right amount of fiery wasabi?

Seared tuna loin, pickled mooli, cucumber and radish
Seared tuna loin, pickled mooli, cucumber and radish

St. Luke’s Kitchen doesn’t offer any foods you’ve never heard of, and its only gimmick is that there was a book left at every place with the menu in it like a bookmark. It’s a dark semi-underground room with forty seats, excellent service, and beautifully-presented food that is simply very good.

Pan fried sea bass, chard, speck and lentil dressing
Pan fried sea bass, chard, speck and lentil dressing

The menu is short and to-the-point: four starter options (£6.50 to £8.50); five mains (£14.50 to £23.50); four sides (£4.50); and four desserts including cheese.

Little spears of bread with butter, olive oil and balsamic
Little spears of bread with butter, olive oil and balsamic

Perhaps the nicest touch was, surprisingly the bread, which came in javelin-form, with both a pat of unsalted butter and olive oil-submerged balsamic. Of course, I covered my own spear in all three, plus liberally applied salt. Why would anyone want unsalted butter?

Another highlight was the salted caramel ice cream with popcorn. It’s not exactly a new idea but somehow the soft, ultra-dry texture of the popcorn meshes perfectly with the sweet frigid cream, and crumbs, surprisingly, are almost always a good addition to desserts. This time they were honeycomb.

Popcorn ice cream, salted caramel and honeycomb
Popcorn ice cream, salted caramel and honeycomb

We got a side salad, which was as pointless as side salads always are. Not sure how people get away with charging nearly a fiver for about 10 calories of floppy-textured leaves. The second dessert, little cake-like slices of chocolate brownie, was also less impressive: not bad, but essentially the same as something you’d get from Pret or M&S, albeit fresher. Or maybe I just don’t have a taste for chocolate brownies.

St. Luke’s Kitchen is a nice place; the private club atmosphere adds to the experience; and the ambiance is very private and intimate. What’s more they serve no frills takes on the sorts of dishes you see on lots of restaurant menus, impressive in their consistency and quality. I can’t speak for the quality of the future guest chefs, but the standard of the regular fare makes St Luke’s worth keeping in mind.

Score: One medal (for an explanation of our scoring system, see here).

Review: Blacklock, Soho

in Restaurants

The thing you might already know about Blacklock is that it does chops. That’s its Thing, and it’s probably the first restaurant to centre itself around that concept in London, despite the plethora of barrel-scraping gimmicks and idiosyncrasies across the restaurant scene.

I say ‘probably the first’ because I know that Whitechapel’s Tayyabs is famed for its chops, but I secretly suspect that the fervour fans have for its food is driven not by its quality but by the fact it hearkens from 1972, an era in London’s history when greasy spoons and pubs seem to have been responsible for most of the city’s eating out.

Blacklock does ‘skinny chops’ for £4 a go (mostly pork); and ‘fat chops’ starting at £5 per 100g (for a pork chop) and ending at £8 per 100g (for Porterhouse or prime rib of beef). When we went, it was ‘Butcher Price Monday’, which meant that all of these bigger fat chop pieces were cut to £5 per 100g, which is how much it would allegedly cost us at the butcher (or more precisely, their butcher, Philip Warren’s in Cornwall).

It also does a few snacks—little crackers, priced at £1 each, with something like duck rillettes with kimchi or anchovies and egg—£5 cocktails including a solid Old Fashioned, a take on the French 75, and an Aperol Negroni (sweeter and less bitter than the regular Campari version). The snacks are pretty good little bites, satisfying if unspectacular in flavour.

Snacks: dripping ham, cheese and pickle, egg and anchovy & duck rillette and apple kimchi
Snacks: dripping ham, cheese and pickle, egg and anchovy & duck rillette and apple kimchi

And it also does sides and special Sunday offerings that we didn’t try. The sides were all excellent. Kale and parmesan was a few soft dark green leaves with a bit of bite and covered in incredibly salty-savoury flavour. The blood orange and meat radish salad was crunchy, bitter and sweet. The 10-hour ash-roasted sweet potato was special: soft, mashed texture sweet potato on the inside with a crispy bark of a deep black ashy flavour; somehow it works. The chips were as good as beef dripping chips always are—why use anything else to fry your potato?

The blood orange salad and the kale with parmesan
The blood orange salad and the kale with parmesan

We got an 800g sirloin and a 1.2kg prime rib, for a total of £100 between five. It was about enough food for a regular person, combined with the sides, but perhaps not enough for someone as greedy as me. Given the weight taken up by the bone on each, I’d probably order somewhat more: this gave each person about four thick slices of beef. These slabs come detached from the bone (which itself has a good bit of meat for chewing) and in neat meaty slabs.

We had the sirloin medium rare and the prime rib medium. The rib was the better of the two, incredibly tender, light pink and with morsels and lines of melting near-liquid fat. The sirloin had a bit more beefiness but much less of the juicy fatty give, and took a little slicing.

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Rib of beef
Sirloin
Sirloin

In a city that’s getting ever more expensive, central Soho joints that offer affordable dinners are extremely welcome, and anywhere that offers a satisfying meal for £20-25 without drinks and service is to be lauded. Add in £5 cocktails and the place is special. Blacklock has a niche, rather than a gimmick—properly grilling and roasting nice bits of meat for a reasonable price—and it fills it really well. Gordon Ramsay was even there at the next table with his pals when we went along—he’s surprisingly tall and good-looking in person!

Rating: One medal. See a map of all the restaurants we recommend in Soho and elsewhere.

Review: The Grey Horse, Kingston

in Restaurants

The Grey Horse is an unassuming pub a few minutes from Kingston train station that has been rebranded as a whiskey bar and barbecue restaurant. I was a little apprehensive about going, suffering from a sore throat and having had a pretty bad run of barbecue food over the past few weeks.

A bit like hamburgers, barbecue is a wonderful food type that has exploded in London in recent years, mostly for the best (Ben adored Soho’s Shotgun, and we both like Pitt Cue quite a lot) but producing more than its share of lazy cash-ins as well. The good barbecue places are good, but there is plenty of crap as well.

Happily, The Grey Horse falls into the former category, despite a few misfires. Its craft beer list is solid, though with perhaps a few too many basic IPA beers – if you have Sierra Nevada, there’s no need for Meantime IPA, Camden Pale and Goose Island as well. My Old Fashioned (£7) was nicely sweetened with a hint of maple from the rye whiskey.

Pumpkin chowder (£5) was creamy and rich, with big chunks of haddock and a generous pile of crispy fried leeks on top. It may be me, but I think chowder always needs hot sauce to give it a slightly vinegary taste at the back of your throat, but I have never seen this at a restaurant, so I can’t fault The Grey Horse.

The most serious failing of the meal was the chicken wings  (£6). Chicken wings are almost always done badly by British restaurants. It’s not hard: they should be crispy (cook them at a high temperature) and, if they are buffalo wings, coated in a mixture of melted butter and hot sauce (Frank’s or Crystal, for example). They should not be sugary, they should not be covered in a ketchup-like sauce, and they should absolutely not be soggy or slimy.

These weren’t the worst I’ve had, but they weren’t crispy and the ‘hot sauce’ was more like a sweet chilli sauce than I had expected or wanted. They were made with good chicken, though, so a few tweaks to the recipe could produce something special.

My Jacob’s Ladder beef rib (£16, but smaller, cheaper cuts were available), however, was superb. It was cooked perfectly: crispy on the outside, moist and pink inside, with thick veins of hot, melting fat that filled my mouth with flavour when I bit into them. The outside was only given a light coating of barbecue sauce, and none was provided for dipping, which proved to be a good thing. Such a good piece of meat deserves not to be overpowered by strong sauces. The side-dish of home-made pickles – red onions, cucumber and celery – was impressive too.

Macaroni and cheese is another dish that most restaurants mess up, usually by baking it for so long that all the moisture from the cheese sauce cooks into the macaroni. This was pleasantly creamy, if not quite gooey, but let down by not having any strong cheesy flavour. The sauce was apparently made with cheddar, Monterey jack and parmesan, but it needed something much sharper to give the kick that macaroni and cheese deserves. It had quite a nice truffley aftertaste, but I’m not sure why.

My companion had the 3 way smoked rib plate (£20), which as well as a slightly smaller beef rib had a small rack of pork ribs and an Iberico rib, and seemed like a generous serving. The Iberico rib was cured and coated in a sweet sauce that reminded me of a very succulent Christmas ham.

Deep-fried apple pie (£6) for dessert was basically a posh McDonald’s apple pie served with cinnamon ice cream. Since McDonald’s apple pies are close to perfection, it’s hard to say that this was an improvement on that, but its thick and soft pastry soaked up the ice cream and apple filling nicely.

I confess that I did not have high hopes for The Grey Horse, but it slowly won me over. Some of the menu needs work – chicken skin is a blessing, and a kitchen that does not cook it to crispness is committing a mortal sin. But in the main meat courses, where it really matters, it gets it right.

Rating: One medal.

Review: Apollo Banana Leaf, Tooting

in Restaurants

There’s a concept in economics that says when it’s difficult for consumers to tell good products from bad products before they buy, you eventually only end up with the bad – there is no advantage to selling things of decent quality, but doing so takes more work, so why bother?

I sometimes wonder if the vast number of identikit curry houses in London serving greasy, overspiced, underflavoured curries have done this to Indian food. I dread visiting one, and I suspect the bad have driven out the good. In theory, brands are one way of getting around this problem, because they reduce consumer ignorance about what they’re buying. This may explain why Dishoom has done so well despite being pretty average. At least you know what you’re getting.

Still, this problem doesn’t seem to have overwhelmed Tooting’s Apollo Banana Leaf, which somehow manages to thrive selling solid Indian and Sri Lankan food at amazingly low prices. I’ve been three times, and every time it has been close to being full, and like Vauxhall’s Hot Stuff it seems to have something of a cult following.

The two dining rooms room are canteen-like with bright lights and white tiles, plus some flashing Christmas lights in the window (in mid-February). The menu is large and daunting, though many dishes are repeated under different section headings depending on their ‘meaty’ ingredient.

Lamb rolls and chicken dosa

To start we had mutton rolls (99p each) and a chicken masala dosa (£5.75), which was a rice and lentil pancake filled with a chicken and potato curry that was strongly flavoured with cumin. This came with a thin aubergine sauce to pour on top. This was very big, and the bites that included a big explosion of cumin from a whole seed were quite delicious, but overall it was too stodgy for my tastes. Mutton rolls were substantial and meaty, and came with two excellent dipping sauces, one chilli and one coconut, that were sweet with a vinegary bite.

Aubergine curry

Aubergine curry was spectacular: a creamy, sweet, rich sauce with thin spears of aubergine that had been cooked perfectly to give them just the right amount of bite. The sheer amount of food we ordered made it difficult to finish this one, but I just about managed it.

Devilled mutton
Devilled mutton

I’ve mentioned my love of goat before on this blog and that’s also true of mutton. There’s something about eating that ever-so-slightly chewy, powerfully-flavoured meat that makes me feel immensely satisfied. Devilled mutton was marinated in vinegar before being dry-fried in big chunks with onions and chilli and covered in a hot, spicy paste. It was tolerably spicy (and I am not a Big Man about spicy food) and deliciously warming, though the ‘mutton fry’ I had at a previous trip there was slightly better with smaller, crispier bits of mutton.

Prawn 65
Prawn 65

‘Prawn 65’ was a plate of lightly battered fried prawns, tempura-like, and even though they were juicy and fresh I admit that I found them a little bit pointless.

On previous trips I’ve tried their egg stringhopper (a dish of spiced rice noodles and scrambled eggs) and a mutton dish that came, fairly bizarrely, with tagliatelle-style noodles and vegetables, and even more bizarrely was quite delicious.

For all the above plus rice and a chappati – which was more than enough for two – the bill came to just £33, which felt like a real bargain (bear in mind that it is BYOB so that clearly helped).

After three trips, Apollo Banana Leaf feels like an old friend – not necessarily very pretty, occasionally a little boring, but most of the time very enjoyable, comforting, and reliable. And somewhere I’ll want to visit again and again.

Rating: 〶 〶 – Two medals.

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